A trip to the Taj Mahal is pretty much compulsory for everyone whilst in Agra; I have visited numerous times yet still it defies complete description, the scale and detail of the place is beyond my full elucidation. In 1631, the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child! Started in 1632 taking twenty thousand craftsmen & labours more than twenty years to complete seems trifling when you are actually ‘on site’ and moving through the halls and chambers that make up this vast epitaph to love; the ‘romantic’ in me still finds this devotion to a departed lover spellbinding. We also surveyed Akbars tomb. Akbar was probably the greatest Mughal Emperor of all time, and it was his son who built the Taj Mahal. This mausoleum is simplistic by comparison to the Taj Mahal and receives only a handful of visitors in contrast, although it is huge, it gives off a nice sense of an unostentatious man.
We spent some hours exiting Agra in an attempt to find a path which doesn’t clog-up with ‘Tuk tuks’ and creeping rickshaws; and here I must explain how the system works. Entering the melee and before the gap is large enough for a fullsize vehicle a ‘Tuk tuk’ or suchlike will dive into the opening from any direction to fill the available space, thus making headway can be painfully slow. The method therefore is not to leave space for even a starving rat because there are plenty of those roaming the streets too! Conversely, once clear of the city a large modern dual-carriageway opened-up in front of us whisking us along at a very respectable pace. I am also jolly pleased with the route we have chosen into Jaipur; the ‘Pink City’ appears fresh and bustling with interesting shops and bazaars along the open streets. Crossing back into Rajasthan evokes images of kings’, queens’ and maharajas’ and our chosen lodging is the former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the palace has conventionally colonial décor, sumptuous rooms and several restaurants to disrupt ones girth. Originally built in 1835 as residence for the queen’s favourite handmaiden, it was later refurbished as the royal hunting lodge and guesthouse and here we can enjoy the splendour of royal India at its best. I could spend the evening driving in and out the gates; the boys in control perform a rather amateur over-zealous stamping and saluting ceremony each time you appear, all done with the utmost seriousness. However, a beautiful smile does hover behind their stern gaze which can be brought to the surface with very little effort. Also in Rajasthan, we see again, the local ladies wearing the most gorgeous vibrant coloured saris and riding pillion, perched elegantly side-saddle aboard the typical 100cc Honda motorcycle, many of them cradling the latest addition to the family.
Turning south we have just one nasty section of 10 or 12 kilometres before the road improves to become an easy flowing provincial highway which leads us to toward Ranthambore National Park where you will have a last chance to spot Tigers’ in the wild. I’m more than happy with the accommodation Lally has selected for an overnight in the locality and combined with a short, 3 hour, driving day should give everyone the opportunity to take a safari. Having explored the services offered to tourists wishing to glimpse a Tiger we hope to reserve the best options by booking early.
The fort and old city of Chittor is the destination for our final rest day of the event. We will be staying at a nearby palace where we met the Maharaja whose family has presided over 90 local villages for the last thirteen generations; a very well educated and interesting man who showed us some of the more ‘rural’ roads of his domain. While exploring the district he spoke of how they settle disputes in the community, no weighty administrative jargon to muddy the waters, the Maharaja’s word is final and passing through the villages it was obvious he is respected and held in very high regard.
At one of the hotels we inspected we came upon two Elephants with their ‘Mahouts’ offering rides into the bush. Animal welfare isn’t high on the agenda out here and therefore it was refreshing to see these elegant giants so beautifully ‘turned-out’ and obviously content.
I shall have to eat my words, in an earlier missive I declared there wasn’t an uncongested open-road in the country, but after much searching we found it! And just where we needed to leap 150 kilometres forward we found an excellent stretch of fast dual-carriageway; that isn’t to say there wasn’t the odd bullock cart or Tata approaching down the oncoming fast lane at a steady gait but exceptions have to be made. Neither was I surprised to find cows lying peacefully in the fast lane nonchalantly chewing the cud!
On our final run into the city of Mumbai we spotted a bus so crammed with passengers we could only make-out body parts oozing from every aperture and the vehicle crabbing heavily down the road enabling us to read the writing down the side whilst following it! We also noticed girls weeding the central reservation of a six-lane motorway with just a bent spoon; not a traffic cone, barrier or warning sign in sight! This beautifully illustrates that after two and a half months of survey we can still be surprised at what we see each day. Not a single day passes without coming across a scene that either alarms or amuses us; indeed, many scenarios could come straight from a Monty Python sketch. Assume nothing and expect the unexpected are the two overriding comments I would make to anyone visiting for the first time. I wouldn’t go as far as to say India should carry a health warning but I think all its international borders should display a sign in large letters over each immigration desk reading, “WELCOME TO OUR WORLD” then perhaps in smaller letters underneath, “Warning:- It’s not your World.” For those who have never experienced life lived in the raw then India is a wonderful place to start. We both have been truly in awe of the outright friendliness and tenacity of the people; Lally commented she has never heard a single word of complaint from anyone we have met. They all, without exception, get on with living life and simply appear happy to have a job and their health; principles we both admire.